Friday, 5 October 2018

Book Review: Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 65 (Autumn 2018)
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Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump
 By John Fea
 William B Eerdmans Publishing Company Grand Rapids, Michigan,
 2018
 ISBN 978-0802876416

John Fea is professor of History at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. He is an evangelical Christian shocked at the support that the overwhelming majority of evangelicals, urged on by their pastors, gave to Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential election and at the support that they continue to give him. He had expected Hillary Clinton to win (it is important to always remember that she did win the popular vote) and had been left with feelings of ‘shock, anger and sadness’ when Trump was elected. Much of this was directed at his fellow evangelicals, 81% of whom had voted for Trump and who had been crucial in securing his victory. 

Five days after the election, he attended the megachurch ‘where I have worshipped for the last sixteen years’.  When he looked around at his fellow worshippers, ‘I could not help thinking that there was a strong possibility…that eight out of ten people in that sanctuary – my brothers and sisters in my community of faith – had voted for the new president-elect’.

This book, dedicated to the 19% of evangelicals who never voted for Trump, is an attempt to explain how so many devout Christians came to vote for the monstrous human being who is Donald Trump, someone without out even a cursory knowledge of the tenets of their faith, and why so many of them continue to support him even today. What can we learn from his account?

A useful starting point is the post-Second World War ‘religious revival’ that took place in the United States. As he points out, while the US population grew by 19% between 1945 and 1960, church attendance grew by 30%. Indeed, ‘by 1960, 69 percent of Americans belonged to a church or synagogue’. 

Nothing like this occurred in any other Western country. It is a major historical phenomenon that has to be grasped if the contemporary United States is to be understood. In 1900 only 36% of Americans claimed to be members of a church, rising to 49% by 1940, followed by Fea’s great ‘religious revival’. This revival did not just happen by chance, it was not some sort of natural phenomenon and it was certainly not divinely inspired. Rather, the American ruling class sponsored a massive pro-Capitalism propaganda offensive that had Christianity at its centre. Christianity was pro-Capitalist and America was Christian. The scale of the propaganda offensive was enormous, the work of what has been called ‘the spiritual-industrial complex’, and it was tremendously effective.

Partly the Christian propaganda offensive was intended to mobilise the country against the threat of atheistic Communism, but as far as most US businessmen were concerned it was also intended to bring down the New Deal, to roll back such satanic abominations as old age pensions, the minimum wage and unemployment pay, to cut taxes and to curb federal interference in business affairs. This agenda was wholeheartedly embraced by Christian clergy across the country. The US Advertising Council launched ‘Religion in American Life’ campaign that in 1949 placed 2,200 ads urging church attendance in US newspapers, rising to 9,700 in 1956. In 1956, the campaign erected 5,412 billboards alongside major highways, put up 9,857 posters in bus and railway stations and 59,590 on buses and trains. The church attendance campaign was on the radio, on TV, it permeated everywhere, even Hollywood got into the act. And one of the religious leaders who emerged as the most determined champions of capitalism was Billy Graham. As he told one appreciative audience in 1952, there were no trade unions in heaven!

The election of Dwight Eisenhower as President was one of the political consequences of this Christian propaganda offensive. He very publicly embraced the trappings of Christianity (he was actually baptised in office!), adding the phrases ‘In God We Trust’ to the currency and ‘one nation, under God’ to the Pledge of Allegiance. What Eisenhower did not do, however, was dismantle the welfare reforms of the New Deal. They were too popular. Graham gave his full support to Eisenhower and was particularly impressed by his Vice President, a certain Richard Nixon, describing him on one occasion as ‘the greatest Vice President in history’. When Nixon stood against Kennedy for the Presidency, Graham advised him to play the anti-Catholic card. He regarded Nixon as ‘God’s man to lead a Christian nation’ and remained his close confidante both before and after he became President, continuing to support him even as the Watergate scandal overwhelmed him. Indeed, according to left-wing journalist IF Stone, Graham was Nixon’s ‘Rasputin’, if somewhat ‘smoother’.

What we see in these years, however, is a Christian establishment very much subordinate to the Republican Party, very much in the role of cheerleaders rather than actually taking to the field themselves. This began to change in the 1960s and 1970s. It is in these decades that we begin to see the emergence of the New Christian Right. According to Fea, there were a number of factors that precipitated this development. Immigration was one with the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act ending the quota system that favoured North and West Europeans and allowing in immigrants from South and Central America and from Asia into the country. Another key issue was opposition to desegregation, in particular the threat that it posed to Bob Jones University and to Liberty University. This is something the Christian Right plays down today, insisting that it was abortion that was the decisive issue forcing them to go into politics. The weapon they chose to advance their agenda was Fear: Christian America was under attack from dark forces inspired by Satan, under attack from secular humanism! As Fea puts it, ‘Fear is the political language conservative evangelicals know best’. The Christian Right began a protracted culture war, intent on rolling back the liberatory cultural changes that had began to manifest in the 1960s.

In 1979, Jerry Falwell set up the Moral Majority to coordinate the Christian campaign against the fruits of secular humanism: abortion, pornography, homosexuality, feminism and the exclusion of Christianity from schools. The campaign was so successful that the following year, Falwell was a big influence in ‘shaping the 1980 Republican platform’. Even at this early stage, while the Christian Right was committed to gaining control of Congress and the Presidency, as far as they were concerned ‘the control of the Supreme Court is essential’. This movement, despite its ups and downs, and its’ different guises has remained a decisive force on the Right of US politics, a force that Republican candidates for office have had to placate. Even John McCain, who at one time had made clear his contempt for the Christian Right, in the end had to acknowledge their power by speaking at Liberty University and appointing Sarah Palin as his candidate for Vice President in 2008. She was pointedly not invited to his funeral this year. Nevertheless, the Christian Right felt that it was consistently let down by the men it helped elect into office, that Ronald Reagan and George W Bush, whatever their public expressions of piety and no matter what bones they threw to their Christian Right supporters, in the end they failed to decisively confront and overthrow the threat of secular humanism. Indeed, the threat had only grown, become more and more serious, so that by 2016 there was a real danger that Christian America might be lost forever with all the dreadful consequences that would follow, not least Divine Retribution.

Why did the Christian Right turn to Donald Trump in 2016? There were a host of evangelical candidates for the Republican nomination, all of whom knew their Bible and had strong evangelical credentials, but they chose Donald Trump. Three factors were arguably decisive in persuading the leaders of the Christian Right to embrace a bullying, selfish, profoundly ignorant, semi-literate sexual predator without a Christian bone in his body. According to Fea, what was decisive was Trump’s release of ‘the names of eleven judges whom he said he would consider nominating to the Supreme Court’. He was as far as they were concerned their ‘last-ditch attempt…to win the culture wars’. The second factor was the nomination of a committed evangelical Mike Pence as candidate for the Vice Presidency. And third, there was his promise of uncompromising support for Israel.

What was essentially a backroom deal between Trump’s people, as we now know a collection of crooks, fraudsters and conmen, and the leaders of the Christian Right, arguably not much better, was sold to their followers in three ways. First they were told that whatever he might have been in the past, Trump was ‘born again’, was now a true Christian. For those not gullible enough to fall for this, his personal character and lack of any taint of Christianity did not matter because God had chosen him to defend the faithful regardless. Isaiah 45 was the key text where Cyrus the Great is enlisted to do God’s work even though he is a brutal, pagan despot. And lastly there was the enormity of the threat to Christian America posed by a Clinton Presidency. Obama, whom many evangelicals seriously believed was a secret Muslim (in 2015 43% of Republicans polled believed this), let alone a Kenyan, as far as the Christian Right was concerned had prepared the way for the final triumph of secular humanism in the guise of Hillary Clinton. On the more extreme fringes of the Christian Right, Hillary Clinton was seen as demonically inspired, personally involved in the rape of hundreds of children, before sacrificing them to Baal. While in Britain, these are people you would try to avoid sitting next to on the bus or down the pub, in the US, it is worth remembering, there are a lot more of them and they are usually heavily armed. One particular real threat that exercised the Christian Right, however, was that a Clinton administration would withhold federal funds to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars from Christian colleges, most notably Liberty University, that refused to employ gay staff. Just for the record, the current president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Junior, has actually urged students to get permits to carry concealed firearms!

With the support of the Christian Right, Trump won. He is in the process of handing the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court over to the Christian Right, and he has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, an essential part of Christian Right eschatology. He has surrounded himself  with people whom Fea describes as no better than ‘Court Evangelicals’, an assembly of evangelical pastors ready to defend his every utterance, his every action. Among the most prominent is Paula White, credited by many evangelicals with actually bringing Trump to God. She is a proponent of the ‘prosperity gospel’ that celebrates wealth and the wealthy. One can see why Trump finds this  doctrine amenable. One anecdote is enough to capture the essence of her particular school of Christianity: in 2016 she preached a sermon from John 11:44 regarding the raising of Lazarus from the dead. She went on to tell her followers that God had told her to tell them that they too could overcome life’s difficulties ‘if they would only “sow the seed of faith” in the form of a $1144 donation to her ministry… Those who donated would receive an anointed “prayer cloth” that would bring “signs and wonders” to their lives’. These people are themselves completely without shame so it is hardly a surprise that they continue to support Trump.

Fea hopes that the period of Christian Right dominance is coming to an end, that their hold over the evangelical movement is weakening. He looks to growing numbers of young evangelicals turning against Trump and what he stands for, rejecting the culture wars and the politics of Fear. It has to be said that at the time of writing there is little sign of this, although it is vitally important to always remember that there are and indeed always have been many liberal, even radical evangelicals. For the time being his book is a very useful contribution to our understanding of the Christian Right.

John Newsinger

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